(Sunlight and shadows near Deilingen, Germany, 2006, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Dear Heavenly Father, I ask that you place your healing hand on my precious husband* and all others who have lost their childhood because of abuse. May they find the loving, caring Father in you that they never had in their earthly fathers. Through your Holy Spirit, may the child in them be reborn and nurtured in a new life with Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
--Ms. Kathryn S. Ford, "Women's Uncommon Prayers," p. 67
(* Note to reader: The words "my precious husband" can be substituted as appropriate. The original prayer has additional instructions in the book cited for substitutions.)
Much of my middle age has been about "making peace with holidays." Really, I've had to make peace with about every holiday except the 4th of July, Halloween, and Harry Truman's birthday. (Yeah, that's a holiday for state employees in Missouri.)
Father's Day, for me, has become a day to be irritated at religious antiquity for carrying a tradition that God is assigned a male persona, and the ensuing hoo-haa about dancing around it.
I haven't made peace with this one yet.
Oddly enough, the intellectual part of my brain doesn't mind calling God "he." But I dislike the message it sends.
Now, I'm sure others will disagree with what I'm about to say, and that's okay. But the female images for God don't cut it for me either. They seem, well...retaliatory. "I know how we lessen God as "he," we'll make him a she!" So we get things like Godde (which just looks like God misspelled to me) and various forms of "Mother" (but I don't think God is female, either.) I mean, you know, God's God! I like to think God is beyond gender.
You see, for me, part of what makes God holy is the notion that God doesn't even deal with gender stuff in terms of self-definition. Truthfully, I think the only reason sexual differentiation exists in life is we had to have some way to share the DNA around to keep the entire planet from being inbred, in order to insure the fitness of species.
It doesn't work to call God an "it," either, because most people don't have much desire to be loved by an "it."
As long as we're talking about sex, that's another aspect of "God the Father" that seems a little off to me. When we are in the presence of the holy, and we're feeling every bit of it, there's a certain kind of ecstasy and delight in it, once we overcome our fear of it.
Ecstasy and delight have a lot of overlapping places, and one of the places it overlaps is in sexually pleasurable things. I honestly wonder if, in the case of sexually predatory clergy, if there is a misinterpretation over some of the pleasures of leading worship in that. I think back to a time I supplied for the Presbyterians and had one of those "huge realizations."
One Sunday, there were about 70 people in there, and I was realizing that people come to church with their most holy selves, in search of a glimpse of a holy moment. They are often smiling and pleasant and radiating their own bits and pieces of "holy." There's an ecstasy in leading a smooth, joyful liturgy. I suddenly realized that a needy person could mistake this radiance for personal admiration of himself or herself. I could also understand how a sexually needy person could mistake those pleasurable feelings about the ecstasy of good worship with some...um...er...um...pleasurable feelings about some baser forms of ecstasy. That person radiating the joy of Christ, who's actually looking through the person up on the chancel, to see God, could be mistaken for someone who is admiring the clergy person. It made me understand why church predators prefer to hunt in church. What was just "Oh, wow, this is great worship!" to me, might feel like, "Oh ,wow, that person has a crush on me!" to a person who was sexually needy.
So, in that light, thinking of God like a parent seems...well...a little incestuous. "Ecstasy" and "parents" are not two words I generally put together.
But my foremost reason for my struggles with "God the father" lie in a very simple (and probably very common) problem: People who had difficult or painful relations with their father might find it hard to fully love a God who is constantly referred to as "Father." In my own case, it was part of what kept me out of the church for over two decades. My gut identification with God was, well, frankly, a mercurial, arbitrary son of a bitch who would punish me at every turn, even when I was not even sure what I did wrong. Who wants to even be in the same room with a God like that, let alone worship such a God?
I am grateful that I grew far beyond any notion of that kind of God. But my own experience made me very cognizant that this issue might be keeping many, many people away from the doors of any church. In that sense, I don't think using the female terminology for God helps, either. That bumps into people who have issues with their mothers.
It bleeds over into other areas, too. Because I don't have a clear positive picture of "God the Father," it also means I don't have a whole lot of identification when we speak of us being "God's children." If one's childhood recollections are of rarely even getting to be a kid, being "God's beloved child" can be bewildering.
So here's my modest proposal for Father's Day: Just start calling God, God. Forget the use of personal pronouns when you can, and when describing God, use gender neutral words when possible. It would take some time, but it's an easy switch to make.
I do want to make it clear I don't feel a need to go so far as to change things like the Lord's Prayer. After all, Jesus referred to God as his father all the time. If I can read anything between the lines in the Gospels, it's clear to me Jesus had good relationships with not just God as his father, but it probably also mirrors that Joseph was a pretty good father to Jesus here on earth. In that, I'm grateful, because it was precisely the realization that most of the time, when we hear about the word "father" in the Gospels, it's Jesus talking about his father--a father he could call abba--"Daddy." I'm actually okay with learning about that kind of a father.
Even if our own relationships with our fathers are not ideal, it's good to know loving ones exist, and in that sense, I don't mind God the Father sprinkled in a liturgy just a little bit, as long as the context is clear. I continue to grow in my own life by "letting God just be God." I just desire to invite others to a comfortable place with the Almighty!